FAIR LAWN, N.J. — Republican House members aren’t the only ones who arrived home this weekend to critics of President Trump jamming town hall meetings and holding signs demanding that they “resist.”
Freshman Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) held an impromptu question-and-answer session at the Land & Sea diner here Sunday morning, scrapping his plan to have only one-on-one chats with constituents. He answered queries from a crowd of more than 100 people, compared with the roughly 15 who typically come for coffee and eggs early on Sundays, local police said. And the event lasted 45 minutes longer than intended.
The presentation by Gottheimer, who beat seven-term Republican congressman Scott Garrett last year, reflected the balancing act confronting both him and his party as it looks to win back the House majority in 2018: acknowledging the rising fury among its base voters while also courting Trump supporters in swing districts like his own.
“I’m calling balls and strikes,” Gottheimer said. “When I see an abhorrent move by this administration, I speak out. But when I see areas where we can work together — infrastructure, those types of things — we have to talk to Republicans.”
Elsewhere, congressional Republicans over the weekend were facing similarly animated and larger-than-usual crowds, but a far different dynamic. Instead of nodding along with Trump opponents, they dealt in several instances with hostile attendees who stood up and said they were “enabling” a dangerous president.
As the president rallied and rested in Florida, Republican Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.) was challenged at a boisterous town hall meeting in his swing district in Upstate New York. One man wondered Saturday why Reed was not pressuring Trump to release his tax returns.
“You allow them to get away with it,” the man told Reed, who dipped his head and shook it in disagreement as others chimed in, according to a local television station’s video. “You were supposed to help us!” said a woman sitting nearby. Another man held up a sign that read, “Investigate Russia connection.”
In South Carolina, Rep. Mark Sanford (R) drew hundreds Saturday to his Charleston-area town hall meeting, which ended up lasting more than three hours. He at times attempted to steer the talk away from Trump. “It’s the Irish prayer: We can control certain things, certain things we can’t control,” Sanford said, according to BuzzFeed.
Of Trump’s first month in office, Sanford said, “I think we’re all struggling with it.”
For House Republicans, the occasionally testy reception and slog through the weekend represented the first real-time test of how Trump’s presidency could affect their political future. Trump’s raucous, combative style has undoubtedly stirred passions, and although it is not clear whether the GOP majority is vulnerable, it certainly faces volatility.
Gottheimer’s attendees appeared to be from inside the district, which Republicans are hoping to win back next year, and there were no signs of organized protesters.
Some at the diner said that they had voted for Gottheimer but that they had “voted against Trump” or “voted against Garrett.” They said the congressman’s early actions on Capitol Hill left them concerned that the Democrat would not be an effective bulwark against the president, and others said they had become politically active for the first time since Trump’s election.
“We’re baby boomers,” said Peter Bernstein, 65, of Ramsey, who attended with his wife, Karen. “We just believe that all the things we cared about for the past 40 years could be wiped out in the first 100 days.”
Karen Bernstein attended the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration and said she saw only about 10 local people there.
“The next time we got together, a few weeks later, to send postcards to Congress, there were 50,” she said. “It’s a growing thing in our town. People are upset. Our town is Republican [controlled], but a lot of people are independents who are just saying, ‘Really?’ ”
John McConnell of Ridgewood — a retired surgeon who sat at his table with an 8-by-10-inch sign reading “Resist” — said he was politically active in the 1970s but did not feel the need to become so again until the Women’s March.
Of Gottheimer, McConnell said, “He needs to very vociferously resist the Trump agenda. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, but it’s the best start we’ve had in a long time.”
Others wondered what Gottheimer planned to do about what they see as the sparking of race-based hatred nationally, while others — to the loudest and most sustained applause of the morning — wanted to know how the congressman would handle the danger they think Trump poses to the free press, especially after his Friday tweet that called the media “the enemy of the American people.”
Gottheimer replied that he saw Trump’s efforts as “a systematic attempt” to destroy credible news outlets at a time when local newspapers are financially strapped, and to give what he called “anti-Semitic” websites a chance to “rise up.”
Marty Schneider of Franklin Lakes — who said that Gottheimer is a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, which he called “unacceptable” — said he came to see Gottheimer because “an existential threat to the world is in the White House and has to be stopped.”
Sinead Rundell of Glen Rock wanted to know whether Gottheimer planned to use his position on the House Financial Services Committee to expose the president’s financial ties.
“We want to discuss checks and balances, keeping the Trump administration in check,” she said. “He was just put on the [Financial Services] Committee, so how is he going to get Trump’s taxes released?”
The theme of Trump, and more Trump, persisted throughout the event.
Terri Ciavattone of Fair Lawn wanted to know how Gottheimer would police Trump’s spending, especially weekend trips to his club in Florida.
“Isn’t Trump going to Mar-a-Lago every weekend and having people enrich him at his hotels an impeachable offense?” she asked. “This is taxpayers paying for that.”
Esther Sandrof of Teaneck, a child of Holocaust survivors who called the Trump administration’s immigration policies “racist,” said she attended to make sure Gottheimer would vote in support of legal immigration.
“I didn’t know much about him,” she said. “I was voting against Garrett. But Gottheimer has to prove himself.”
A sense of activism pervaded.
“A lot of us are new to this type of activist movement. I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Jennifer Russo, 44. Her advice to the congressman: “My stance is that now is not the time to be conciliatory.”
Costa reported from Washington.